Rockford Schools Construct a Better Path to Learning

While students in the Rockford Public Schools are out for the summer, many of their classrooms are being transformed into modern learning spaces. Discover what it’s taken to make some long-needed changes.

As summer arrives, students of Rockford Public Schools (RPS) are ready for vacations, athletic activities, spending time with friends and so much more.
While they’re having fun, local public schools will be anything but dark over the next several months. Construction crews are working on several elementary schools as part of RPS’s 10-year master facilities plan, funded in part by a $139 million bond referendum approved by voters in 2012.
Late last year, the school board approved an updated plan to improve the RPS elementary school footprint. The amended plan costs $250 million and includes building two new schools and 13 additions, and closing eight schools: Cherry Valley Elementary, Dennis Early Childhood Center, King Elementary, Kishwaukee Elementary, Nelson Elementary, Thompson Elementary, Walker Elementary and White Swan Elementary.
Starting this summer, major additions – some as large as nearly 20,000 square feet – are scheduled for Marsh, Swan Hillman, Welsh, West View and Whitehead elementary schools. Each project is based on the needs of the building.
“We work with architects and the staff in each building to find out what they need, whether it’s a new gym, offi ce, library or classrooms,” says Chief Operations Officer Todd Schmidt. “Traditionally, each addition is different.”
Besides adding classroom space, projects will include new boilers, temperature controls and windows, and better-secured entrances. “It’s a domino effect,” says Schmidt. “They will be like new buildings.” The work is expected to take about eight months and all schools will remain open for the 2015-16 academic year.
Thanks to a 75 percent voter approval in last November’s referendum, tentative plans are to build new schools to consolidate Kishwaukee and Nelson into one building, and Thompson, White Swan and Cherry Valley into a second new building. Sites for the new buildings have not yet been announced.
The school board has agreed to wait to spend money on brand-new schools until a complete report and recommendation comes from the facilities plan oversight committee, a group that’s researching how to accomplish facilities improvements with the allocated budget. That facilities group is meeting now, and a recommendation is expected in December 2015.
Facility improvements have become a top priority for RPS leaders. The district created a capital project team that includes a project director, three managers, an architect and interior designer. And the board created a facilities plan oversight committee to focus entirely on building issues, taking the burden off the operations committee.
Schmidt has seen many highs and lows during his time with RPS. But these days, the Rockford native and graduate of public schools can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“Rockford is a great community,” he says. “It means a lot to me that I’m part of the educational system. We’re maintaining an investment in the community. We want to make sure we have safe and secure environments for students and staff. We’re on the right track.”

Long Time Coming

Renovations to many of these public schools was long overdue. In 2003, RPS started to notice a problem with deferred maintenance.
“We kicked the can down the road for many years, when it came to deferred maintenance,” says Schmidt. “We never had the money to do anything. We put Band-Aid fixes on things. We were constantly spending $5,000 to $10,000 to fix original boilers. Outdated control systems were insufficient and we were wasting energy. We kept patching parking lots that were crumbling. Carpet was held together by duct tape. We had to tell staff they could turn on one air conditioner at a time or they would blow a fuse. It was embarrassing.”
Over the years, school officials reviewed demographic trends and prior renovation work, studied gas and electric usage and the lifespan of windows and roofs. They surveyed students, staff and community members. There were 10,031 surveys collected and dozens of community meetings held.
“We looked at everything,” Schmidt says. “The consensus was that everything was coming apart, from the temperature controls to outdated furniture.”
Schmidt credits a new group of leaders for taking control of the situation. It started when Dr. Robert Willis came in as interim superintendent in 2012 and identified “Five Readiness Rocks” strategies, including 21st century schools, as part of a plan to take the district to 2020.
Current superintendent Dr. Ehren Jarrett was part of Willis’ team before taking the helm in 2013.
“The facilities situation was extremely dire,” he says. “We had an estimated $200 million in deferred maintenance. We had a model of elementary schools that varied dramatically in size and model. Some schools only served 200 students and some 600 students. Fine arts facilities had been ignored and diminished, whether it was theater, art or band rooms. The average age of most of our buildings was 60 years old. We hadn’t built a new school since the late 1990s.”
Jarrett says it took the effort of a couple of community partners to finally get a handle on the problems facing RPS.
First, the Better Schools, Brighter Future campaign, built around RPS’s referendum, aimed at authorizing the school board to reallocate $139 million from the Capital Projects Fund.
The second was Rockford Sharefest, a Heartland Church-based volunteer organization that, for seven years, donated thousands of volunteer hours to RPS schools by painting, carpeting and donating other manual labor to seven schools.
“Better Schools, Brighter Future helped get the referendum passed, and Sharefest brought together thousands of people who saw a deplorable situation,” says Jarrett. “They rolled up their sleeves and did amazing work.
“We’ve had great community support,” he adds. “I was pleased to see overwhelming support with the 65/35 support for the $139 million bond referendum and follow-up 75/25 referendum support for the elementary footprint. Both of those votes showed that the community was willing to support an improved learning environment for our students and staff. We want our public school system to be something that the entire community takes pride in, and facilities play an important part in that. We want to implement best practices like the Next Ford Generation Learning Academy standards. Improved facilities will allow us to continue best education practices.”

Second Phase

The upcoming renovations are the second wave of changes being made to many of the 50 buildings within the Rockford Public Schools.
Starting in the 2013-14 school year, additions and upgrades were made at Johnson, Conklin, Lathrop, Spring Creek, McIntosh and Froberg elementary schools. Most buildings received additional classroom space and new cafeterias, eliminating the gym/cafeteria/auditorium all-in-one space – often called a gymacafetorium. The projects also included window replacement, electrical outlets and panels, and exterior upgrades.
Space was the biggest problem at Froberg Elementary School, on 20th Street, before a major renovation took place in 2013. Rooms were cramped. Some students were relegated to working in a trailer behind the school. There was a shortage of restrooms. Computers were wedged into a corner of the library. And there was no gymnasium.
These days, Froberg has a spacious new gymnasium, which has freed up the cafeteria for serving lunch. The gymnasium includes plenty of seating, a sound system and projection screen, storage and office space. Elsewhere in the school, there’s a computer room; dedicated space for a STEM lab, where robotics team members and other students can work; additional classrooms, bathrooms and parking; new furniture; SMART boards in the library/media center; and a more secure entrance.
“I love it,” says Patty Whitlow, a fifth-grade teacher. “Kids are a lot happier and parents are impressed. In general, we have more movement throughout the school. We have room to spread out.”
Principal Christina Ulferts started her career as a second-grade teacher at Froberg, home to 450 students, and was principal at New Milford Elementary School, before coming back to Froberg in 2011. “It was tough, but everyone worked together,” says Ulferts, who had input in the changes. “Sometimes we had to work around the noise. But in the end, it was well worth it.”
Froberg is now able to host after-school basketball games, musical programs and award ceremonies. It recently hosted its first career fair, with 40 guests representing professions from medicine to banking. Froberg is also home to new activities such as A World in Motion, a program that welcomes engineers and other volunteers to work with students on mathematics and engineering projects.
“I’m excited about the changes,” says Lori Roberts, PTO president and mother of two Froberg students. “It’s nice to see the school moving in this direction. I used to hold the annual book fair in the gym/cafeteria, which was cramped. Now we have plenty of room in the STEM lab.” Up next for Roberts and the PTO is building an outdoor courtyard for students.

Field Houses

Three of the four RPS high schools were built before Title IX, the federal law of 1972 that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in schools that receive federal funding – including in their athletics programs. The three high schools weren’t made to accommodate the number or variety of sports in which students participate today.
So, in the past two years RPS spent $31 million building field houses at Auburn, Guilford and, most recently, East high schools. At Jefferson, which was built after Title IX, walls were removed, the basketball court was replaced, and new bleachers were installed – and the space got a new paint job. “It looks like it could be a new field house,” says Schmidt.
At Auburn, a 100,000-square-foot field house includes physical education stations, a 200-meter track, four basketball/volleyball courts and future strength training and multipurpose space for academic and athletic programs. In addition, the project included a new cafeteria and eight additional classrooms.
The field houses at Guilford and East are 83,000 square-feet and include a 160-meter track with three basketball courts, a new entrance to the school’s swimming pool, a weight room, concession stand area, storage space and athletic offices.
Dozens of meetings were held as athletic directors and coaches were given the opportunity to offer their input. It’s also allowed athletes to stay after school for practices, instead of getting bussed to another location.
The district’s focus is on college and career readiness, academic achievement and graduation, says Mat Parker, director of athletic activities, program development. Athletics and fine arts aren’t at the very top of the priority list, but they’re often more visible in the community ensuring students are ready for college and the workplace after they graduate. Athletics is another way to collect community support.
“We’re going to get people into the buildings through athletic events and theater performances, and provide them with an awesome experience,” Parker says. “Hopefully, that will translate into those people participating in teacher conferences, volunteering and getting alumni involved with Rockford Public Schools.”
There’s no shortage of reasons to invest in what Parker calls the district’s front porch – athletics, arts and clubs are a sort of curb appeal that are often seen first, before the brick-and-mortar of the district. Administrators have data showing that students who are involved in their school through athletics and other extracurricular activities have fewer disciplinary issues, higher attendance rates and grade point averages, and higher respect for their peers and their building.
“We try to attract and hire the best coaches, let our students compete in the best facilities and give our students the best opportunities to succeed in life,” Parker says. “A natural byproduct is, hopefully, winning NIC-10 championships. But the athletics and art investment build on what our students are already getting in the classroom.”
Now, other school districts are visiting Rockford to tour the new athletic facilities, in hopes of duplicating RPS’s success. RPS is now hosting new basketball tournaments and track meets, thanks to its new facilities, which are bringing out-of-state teams to the area. “It’s a new era for the Rockford Public Schools,” says Parker. “It’s exciting to be part of this renaissance not only in athletics but the school district as a whole.”

Turning the Corner

The future looks bright for Rockford Public Schools. More schools will be repaired down the road. The result is happier students and staff, and a more efficient way of doing business. For example, when the windows were replaced at East High School in 2013, school officials saw an 18 percent reduction in the gas bill the following winter.
“I’m feeling a sense of pride in the way this community has really stepped up to improve the quality of our schools in the way they function and look,” says Jarrett, a Rockford native. “That’s incredibly important. I don’t think you can diminish the fact that, when a new family moves into town and drives by their neighborhood school, they see a well-maintained building that has appropriate learning space. That sends a huge message that we’re investing in our children and we feel they’re important enough to give them a high-quality learning environment. This isn’t anything superfluous or overly exotic. I’m talking about well-designed learning facilities that meet the needs of our students and our staff.”
Bridget French is the executive director of Alignment Rockford, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to align community resources in support of public school strategies to help raise student achievement, improve the health and happiness of the students and advance the economic and social well-being of the community. She’s also seen the disrepair of local schools up close, as the mother of two school-aged children.
“I want my kids to have the best possible education,” she says. “We have quality teachers, great curriculum and the right people in place – we just need all of our facilities to match the rest of the experience. In today’s global marketplace, kids need the latest technology to compete. If our schools don’t have that type of technology, it affects learning. The way students used to learn isn’t the way they learn today. Now, we have desks that move around so students can work together in groups and learn team dynamics and collaboration. The physical space is conducive to helping students learn those 21st century skills.”
Jarrett points to the success of the 10-year facility plan. Now, he says, the next step is to assess strategies to determine next steps.
“We want to get in the habit of investing in our schools on an annual basis, so that deferred maintenance doesn’t build up again and our facilities don’t slip into disrepair again,” he says. “It’s taken a tremendous amount of work from our board, community support, and the right people inside our organization to make this happen. I’m really pleased with the work Todd Schmidt and his team have done to continue to execute this plan to make sure the community is getting value for those taxpayer dollars that are being invested.”
So far, so good, says French.
“A good school system is the root of a good community, in my opinion,” she says. “We are moving in a direction where the school district is the pride of our community.”